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How the physics concept of ‘negentropy’ can change your life


Life is full of small decisions: Should I pick up that sock on the floor? Should I do the dishes before bed? What about fixing the leaky faucet in the bathroom?

Leaving a sock on the ground is a manifestation of a concept from physics you may have heard of: entropy. Entropy is a measure of how much energy is lost in a system. If a system loses too much energy, it will disintegrate into chaos. It takes only a little bit of energy to pick up one sock. But if you don’t take care of your yard, let pipes stay clogged, and never fix electrical problems, it all adds up to a chaotic home that would take a lot of energy to fix. And that chaos will leach away your time and ability to accomplish other things.

The good news is that entropy has an opposite – negentropy. As a researcher who studies social systems, I have found that thinking in terms of negentropy and energy can help you fight against entropy and chaos in daily life.

Minimize energy loss, maximize progress

In both physics and social systems, energy can be defined as the capacity or ability to do work. For more than two decades, I have studied social systems in schools, community dialogues, universities, corporations, and nonprofit organizations. During that time I’ve observed that energy losses are a constant – for example, meetings of four people to plan meetings for seven people, or everyone’s worst nightmare, meetings that could have been accomplished through email. These small frustrations can even build to a point where good employees start quitting.

After thinking about energy for so long, I began to wonder – as others have – whether applying physics concepts to social systems could help them run better.

Over the past four years, my colleagues and I developed a theory of negentropy and, using interviews and case studies, have studied how energy is lost or gained in many types of systems – including in higher education, leadership for online education, workplace organizations, and online learning settings.

Our work suggests that when people keep the idea of negentropy in mind and take actions that limit or reverse energy loss, social systems are more efficient and effective. This might even make it easier for people to achieve larger goals. In other words, yes, you should pick up that sock, and yes, you should improve your meetings, and doing so may allow you to see other ways to avoid future energy losses.

A thermal image of a house showing hotspots of heat leaking out of windows.